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America Searches for a Father

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Is the conspicuous absence of fathers in the young lives of many Generation Xers affecting the movies we make and watch? American film culture is often about father figure we all wish we had, maybe when our own Dad drank, gambled, beat us, left us or revealed himself to be full of human faults and flaws when we were old enough to see them.

If you're older than 30, did anything about the Harry Potter films strike you as familiar? There's the young, novice warrior learning his skills and trying to find his place in a new world. There's the wise older man who's been there and takes the protégé under his wing before dying in the line of duty, prompting feelings of loss and fear but ultimately making the hero step up and be his own man thanks to his mentor's teachings. And there's the evil, demonic-looking nemesis to which the hero is inextricably linked.

Swap the names Potter with Skywalker, Dumbledore with Kenobi and Voldemort with Vader and you have the same timeless Joseph Campbell mythology separated by a generation and a whole lot of CGI.

The producers who owned the 80s, Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, made such themes a distinct aspect of their oeuvre. They might seem all hot love interest, rock soundtrack and machinery and gadgetry porn, but less obvious is the trope of a cocky youngster who'll come unstuck and turn to an older, more experienced man to win the day, whether it's Tim Skerritt as Viper (Top Gun) or Robert Duvall as Harry (Top Car …er, Days of Thunder).

But they're not the only ones. The passing of a mantle to the younger generation is a popular theme. In The Guardian, legendary coast guard diver Ben (Kevin Costner) takes champion-swimmer-with-issues Jake (Ashton Kutcher) under his wing and grooms him as a successor. When Ben goes down with the ship during the thrilling climax, it's a figurative as well as literal device. His time is passed, but his teachings have ensured Jake is now going to be as good as he was and the coasts are safe.

While Mr Miyagi (or Mr Han if you like the more recent Jackie Chan/Jaden Smith version) didn't have to die to shepherd Daniel (Ralph Macchio) to greatness in The Karate Kid, his wisdom made the hero everything he was – again, in a quite literal sense.

It might be a sign of the times. In the age of financial crashes, high profile terrorism and social unrest we're increasingly desperate for an experienced, caring older figure to put his arm around us and tell us everything's going to be all right. That figure is almost never a woman, but a masculine figure who possesses the physical strength to defend and protect us against the hordes and the wisdom to use it properly. We're truly searching for a father who may not exist.

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